The Iris Interview: Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier – Director of Muscle Shoals (USA, 2013)

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The new documentary Muscle Shoals tells the story of a little town of the same name in Alabama, USA, where an incredible amount of iconic music was recorded at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios. We’re talking tracks by everyone from The Rolling Stones to U2 and Aretha Franklin (all of whom appear in the film)… to name but a mere few. The film, which premiered at Sundance at the start of the year, is screening at ACMI in Melbourne from Friday, and so I caught up with the director of the film, Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier, while he was at home in Boulder, Colorado, to talk about the film and his incredible journey with it…

It’s been such an amazing year for this film, kicking off at Sundance…

Yeah it’s been non-stop, there was no way I could have predicted the trajectory this film would take. So it’s been incredibly busy, but a good busy of course. A whirlwind, a new rhythm to life… the travel, the pace and all the stuff going on. It’s been a blessing and exciting.

I was finally able to watch the film yesterday, and it really struck me as a love letter to the town, to Rick Hall’s studios and to the music that was created there… would you agree?

I don’t think I’d call it a love letter… I would call it a fascinating and compelling story of American music, that has somehow slipped further and further into obscurity year after year, decade after decade. And it’s a fascinating tale that had never seen the light of day…

Why do you think that had been? Once you watch the film you can’t help but feel like this is a story that SHOULD have been told by now…

Yeah, I mean everyone says that. It’s everyone’s reaction. It’s a hard one to answer though. I can’t really wrap my head around why is has remained in obscurity for so long.

There are a LOT of interviews in this film, with those involved in the studio’s successes… were they at all surprised it had taken this long?

I don’t feel like that came up very much, but I do think that’s one of the reasons that a lot of these artists did agree to be in the film; because the story is legend amongst musicians and it was well overdue to be told. I think that ended up being the draw of making the time to be involved. That said, I was surprised at how many great artists made time for us. It’s a tribute to the legacy of Muscle Shoals. It’s a cool thing to see all these well known musicians come out and pay homage to all these backup guys who have been behind the scenes their entire lives.

Like most documentaries of this nature, this was a project that spread over several years – what was the hardest part of that process for you? I imagine the editing for starters…

Yes, definitely the editing for one thing. I had a great editor though, Richard Lowe, who did a great job. He came out to Colorado and we cut the film here. That was definitely a big challenge, to take such a dense and complex story, filled with so many characters, and not turn it into a journalistic piece where you rattle off one statistic after another. We wanted to tell a human story, and a cohesive story while fitting in as much as we could… of course, you have to leave a lot out… and make those choices.

The producing side was not fun. My buddy Stephen (Badger) and I produced it, and that’s a tremendous amount of work, that’s not very gratifying. God, it’s an endless hassle… all the things you have to do to get the film made. So those two things come to mind as being the more challenging tasks involved.

One aspect of the film which immediately strikes you is the beautiful cinematography, particularly of the town itself – can you talk a little bit about that aspect of the film…

Yeah I mean I interviewed a bunch of cinematographers. I really wanted to get that decision right and I ended up deciding on Tony (Anthony Arendt), not just because he was an incredible cinematographer, but we’d become really good friends and working together creatively… it just flies off the electrical wires between us. So his work was incredible, and we really thrived off each other – we could have worked all day! He knows about all my projects coming up and he’s my go to guy.

And then you had camera operators like Carlos Doerr and Joel Hood… the whole team… who were amazing and really great to work with. They had great eyes for the screen… with all this, if you can find some guys who you love to make art with, it just makes the journey of making a film all the more rewarding. So I was just blessed to have those guys in my corner.

You tell a lot of stories in the film. Not just of the town or even the studio, but there are the individual stories of how the town and the studio impacted the people who it came in contact with. Through your journey of interviewing these people, was there anything that surprised you along the way?

The magnitude of the story, the diversity of the music, all the people who were a part of it… I’ll be learning something new about Muscle Shoals until the day I die. It’s an amazing place… there’s so much music, so many stories, I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface, and that aspect of it is just mind boggling.

Then there’s their humility in the way they’ve chosen to live their lives, which is very impressive. What they accomplished in their time working together in Alabama… it was so special, especially during the height of the civil rights struggle. And the place, it just has this essence of musical history to it, and that’s still fascinating to me.

I can imagine that you’ve heard more and more stories come out of the woodwork since you released the film, too.

Yeah that’s what’s so cool… it’s like this living and breathing thing, the little tidbits and the stories that come out of this place really are infinite.

With this taking over the last couple of years of your creative life, I can’t imagine you haven’t started looking towards your next project… what’s next for you?

Well, I really want to do a narrative film, I’ve been dying to try that, so I have something in the works that I need to write… I know what it’s about and I’m really excited about it. I wasn’t going to do another documentary next, but I’ve been approached to do something that it’s been hard to say no to. Nothing has been finalised yet, but it’s looking very possible at this stage…

Following screenings earlier this year at Sydney Film Festival, Muscle Shoals will screen at ACMI in Melbourne for a limited season over the Summer, opening Friday 27th December. For more details, visit: http://www.acmi.net.au/lp_muscle_shoals.aspx and you can read our review of the film HERE. A DVD release in anticipated in 2014.

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